Dir: Todd Haynes | Cast: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Chris Tenzis, Charles Melton | US Drama 117′
May December could well be one of the masterworks about the way paedophilia impacts on relationships and family life. It is the confident latest film from Todd Haynes who began as a key figure of the 1990’s New Queer Canadian Cinema with films such as Poison, The Karen Carpenter Story, Safe and Velvet Goldmine. Working with a talented cast and crew, actor Julianne Moore and producer Christine Vachon showcase the power of a mature director in full command of his filmmaking craft.
The film is not an easy watch for those who find difficult subjects uncomfortable in an entertainment context although there is a duty for fearless artists to interrogate challenging subject matter. May December certainly does this and provides a deeply moving and affecting study of the secrets, lies and deceptions that exist even within close relationships.
The title is a play on the seasons of the year reflecting the romantic relationship between two people of different ages, and linking spring – that comes with youth – through to the eventual winter of old age. This connection with the seasons echoes Alexander Singer’s criminally undervalued 1961 film A Cold Wind in August about the relationship between an ageing stripper and a much younger man; as well as Catherine Breillet’s latest feature Last Summer (2023) that sees a married woman toy with her young stepson without serious emotional intentions.
There is a difference here. Once Haynes lifts the lid off the various themes nothing will be the same again for his wide range of players and characters. The plot is straightforward and based in reality, echoing the true 1990s story of 36-year-old Mary Kay Letourneau who left her husband and family after being convicted and jailed due to her relationship with a 13-year-old boy. On release from prison, she married the young man and formed a new family and a cosy, respectable and conventional middle-class life.
At this point in the narrative Haynes introduces melodrama. The mother (Moore) commissions an indie film that will tell her story and, hopefully, reveal honest truths about what had happened years previously. The film begins with a visit from Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) the actor chosen to play Julianne Moore’s dysfunctional character Gracie, in an attempt to understand everyone involved in this extended family life. The coming together of the first family and the children from the second marriage, during a graduation ceremony weekend, is beautifully handled with sly humour while revealing a feature of complex resonances.
The film offers a powerhouse challenge for Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman as the women involved, and recalls the work of George Cukor, another gay filmmaker at ease working with female actors and handling themes involving women. Julianne Moore has the more grounded role as the mother/wife, enabling her to invest her character with more backstory involving childhood abuse trauma that in later life could have manifested in an arrested state of childhood as the source of her original transgressive relationship with the 13-year-old boy. Haynes heightens this with her, now adult, younger husband who is beginning to realise he has missed out on a full experience of life, and revealing that May/December relationships can bring problems later on involving missed and lost opportunities.
Natalie Portman may have the more difficult but also revealing role as Elizabeth. She has a less defined past suggestive of being mildly lonely and only moderately successful. This is all left open but heightens the contrast between both characters: Elizabeth appears to be shadowing Gracie with a form of imitation that reveals how a mix of identity issues and role-playing can be very dangerous. One sequence is particularly revealing and offers a masterclass in skilful technique and razor-edge emotional precision: The two women face each other, seemingly stripped bare of their respective personas.
Another aspect of the film’s power involves Haynes’ well-documented understanding of the 1950s Hollywood cinema of Douglas Sirk. The visual style is mostly melancholy with muted greys and browns and none of Sirk’s expressionistic colour lighting, although there is a similar sense of framing and space involving settings and characters. Also relevant here are Sirk’s themes involving theatrical illusion, patriarchal values and forbidden love – which threaten familiar and social conventions – in a ‘let’s pretend we are all nice’ middle-class setting bringing to mind All that Heaven Allows (1955).
There are many other intriguing and poignant scenes that are best left for viewers to experience. If you are wondering why the beautiful score by Marcelo Zarvos includes sonorous chords of music in a French style, this is because the music incorporates Michel Legrand’s score for Joseph Losey’s film The Go Between. The reference may be intentional as May December is another insight into the myriad ways a child’s life can provide complex links into adult lives. @PeterHerbert
NOVEMBER 17 in cinemas and on SKY CINEMA DEC 8
PETER HERBERT is Curator Manager at THE ARTS PROJECT